My grandmother couldn’t come to visit us from Germany because she was sick, so my grandfather came instead. This could mean we weren’t getting any German licorice, the kind that came packed in a paper cone. There were all different sorts inside, salty coins, tiny hard cats, sugar crusted fish that were salty inside, and ones shaped like gumdrops that you could squish together and flatten. At Christmas my grandmother brought white anis cookies, imprinted with the lives of the saints that she baked from wooden forms. By the time they had flown all the way to America, they were hard and had to be dipped and soaked in tea to be eaten. I would sometimes keep one cookie for three days, gnawing at it slowly and sucking the taste from it.
My grandfather usually never came. At the airport he was wearing his vest with all the pockets on it full of film and a camera around his neck. He also had a pouch of pipe tobacco that he kept on his belt. I was worried he wouldn’t bring any of the same things my grandmother brought, and he didn’t. When he opened his bags, all that came out was the smell of smoke.
My older brother and I watched him in the room we had for guests, which was really my father’s office. He pulled out plastic boxes of filters for his pipes, and he had a little rack that he put the pipes on. My mother didn’t let him smoke in the house. My grandparents’ house in Germany was always filled with smoke. I heard my mother say to my father, “I had enough of that when I was young.” My grandfather didn’t like being told what to do and grumbled that it was unsinn and almost shouted at her but then my father walked in so he went outside.
We went with him and watched him smoke. We asked whether we could do it also, and he looked at us and smiled. First my brother went. Little sparks flew from the pipe and then smoke came out of his mouth. He started grinning and then coughing. He gave me the pipe. I blew into it hard to make the smoke come out but the tobacco just went flying and my grandfather ripped the pipe away from me. He almost started shouting but then he saw how my brother was laughing at me and so he started to laugh a little bit too. He let me try it again and told me I had to suck on it so that “the smoke can go into your mouth.” When I blew it out, I felt like a train.
My grandfather told us to wait and he ran inside quickly. It looked funny because he was fat, but we waited to laugh until he was gone. We grinned at each other because we had both smoked and were now like men. When he came back, he had two little boxes wrapped for us. We each took one, and he watched us carefully. My brother opened his slowly and took a camera out. His face got big with happiness, and I could see how my grandfather liked that his grandson liked the cameras just like he liked the cameras.
I opened my present slowly and there was a small pair of binoculars inside. Right away I became empty because I didn’t care about binoculars at all, and no one ever used them anymore, and you couldn’t do anything with them except look through.
I didn’t say anything and looked straight out at the yard.
“Binoculars are very useful for seeing long distances,” he said, and I felt like my brother was going to agree to this, but we never had to see long distances and my eyes were good anyway.
“I don’t like the binoculars,” I told him. “Edmund’s gift is much better.”
I threw the binoculars onto the table. My grandfather just sat there quietly, and I felt like the clouds were coming down on me. My brother was looking at me shocked with his camera that could actually take pictures of the things you could see.
“Why did you think I would want binoculars anyway?” I asked my grandfather after the silence, but he didn’t say anything. My brother was standing close with my grandfather, and I began to feel like I was already an evil person and now that I had changed, I might as well be evil all the way.
“Grandma would never have gotten me such a stupid gift!” I said, getting up and huffing to the sliding glass door. I could hear him growling “spoiled American children,” as I slipped through and I thought, “Good, I don’t care, I’ll be an American.”
After that I was terrified of my grandfather and also angry at him for the next day. I would stare at him with all my anger and he would look away or mutter. But soon I was jumping on his legs again with my brother and it was almost normal, even though really the whole thing was like a ceiling above us. I was scared because I was the bad person in the family now, and even though everyone was nice, they all agreed that what I had done was wrong.
“It was not nice, what you did,” my mother said.
It was scary now to be on the outside of everyone, and to be alone there. To my grandfather especially, I was different. If I saw him sitting at the table, I would have to quickly turn and walk by him sideways, peaking up. Sitting in the chair to eat, it was like the air was a big pillow I had to push out of the way. He would look at me quickly and I would look back, trying to tell him with my eyes that I had no choice, I had to come sit at the table for breakfast. And I did feel bad. Filling me constantly was the picture of him in the tiny stuffed store in Germany, choosing my binoculars from a shelf and holding them in his fat fingers, hoping that I would like them, while in the meantime I was running down our wide street in Oregon, trying to look into all of the neighbor’s houses, to see what the American children were doing.
Matthew Zanoni Müller is a writer and teacher living in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He was born in Germany, but lived most of his life in the US, either on one coast or the other. His stories and memoirs have been published in Halfway Down the Stairs, DecomP, Prick of the Spindle, The Boiler Journal, NANO Fiction and others. He also has an MFA from Warren Wilson College, and co-authored a memoir with his father entitled Drops on the Water: Stories About Growing Up from a Father and Son. To learn more about his work, please visit: www.matthewzanonimuller.com
© 2011, Matthew Zanoni Müller